NEW YORK — Discussing the seemingly daunting topic of “Women, Beauty & Image” was elementary for Oscar de la Renta.
With wit and candor, the designer talked at length Friday night about those combustible elements and kicked off a weekend-long seminar organized by the Murray Hill Institute. Covodonga O’Shea, president of Spain’s ISEM Fashion Management School, interviewed him in front of 350 working women and students at the Union League Club.
De la Renta said he is well aware that the women he made clothes for in the mid-Sixties that would dress for every occasion — even wearing a nice suit to lunch with friends — are now on an endangered species list. One of the constant challenges is to have a good sense of who you are designing clothes for and understanding her needs and lifestyle, he said.
But, all in all, de la Renta said, this is a prime time to be a designer.
“This is the most exciting time for anyone to be creating clothes. Never has there been in the history of time, women in control of their destiny as they are now,” de la Renta said. “Never have we dealt with a consumer who is as smart as we know women are today.”
That said, the task at hand for designers is complicated. “I’ve been doing this for so many years that people say, ‘It must get easier each year,’” de la Renta said. “It’s tougher every year, because you demand more of yourself and a lot of young, talented people are waiting for you to fail.”
De la Renta said he isn’t influenced by celebrities.
“To be good at whatever you do, you have to keep your eyes open because trends come from everywhere,” he said. “People always ask me, ‘What actress influences you?’ Today the woman who influences me is the woman in the street. They are the people whose needs and lives you need to understand.”
When one attendee implied that many women on city sidewalks don’t wear the most alluring outfits, de la Renta said, “I love gardening, so when I walk on the street, I weed.”
Despite that, the designer said, “I always say, ‘Beauty is not something you are born with.’ At 18, a woman might not be so good-looking but at 40 she could be extraordinary looking. That is the beauty that interests me — the beauty you create.”
In response to a question about the oversexualization of young women, de la Renta said, “Ultimately, fashion is self-expression of who you are. It’s how you want to present yourself. Sex appeal is not really in the clothes you’re wearing. You express far more with your eyes than anything else,” he said. “What is important for every woman today is to create or relay a sense of identity to convey the message of who you are.”
But that can take some work.
“I always say, ‘To be well-dressed is a question of discipline and discipline is something that one learns.’ It’s not really saying, ‘Dress this way,’” de la Renta said. “That special effort has to be made on a daily basis. But you should not dress for others. You should dress for yourself.”